Learning to live in a city you don’t love

June 11, 2015

It’s been six months since I got back from Laos and almost a year to the day since I first arrived in Vientiane.  I still can’t adequately describe what life was like there, or why I didn’t like it.  It’s just one of those vast things on par with ‘why is chocolate so amazing?’ or ‘what’s the meaning of life?’.  People ask me “what was Laos like?” and all I can say is “the complete opposite of New Zealand” which is such an inadequate answer I feel like a total dick saying it but it’s the truth.  How do you describe the feelings of loneliness and isolation, frustration, excitements and changes that happen to you when you live in a culture so completely different from your own.

Some of the things I want to say I struggle with because they go against my personal morals, not to mention my anthropological background.  But I also struggle with not being honest about what travel is sometimes like.  That’s why I wanted to start this blog – to stop romanticising travel because sometimes it’s not fun and exciting and wonderful.  Sometimes people are rude, mean and dishonest.  Sometimes you don’t enjoy it and you don’t want to be there.  But, travel is always eye-opening, and most importantly I think, worthwhile.

[A little background] When I finished my masters I didn’t really have a plan.  I knew I needed a break from school and I needed to earn some money – but most of all I wanted to travel.  Unfortunately it wasn’t quite that simple – Guy wasn’t ready to leave his dream job or Wellington just then.  So we talked, and yelled, and cried and talked some more.  We agreed that I would leave and he would stay.  It wasn’t the option either of us wanted but it was the only solution we saw short of breaking up (which we also discussed).

So I applied to teach English in Japan with the JET programme, and I was accepted but decided that one year apart was too long so declined.  But the idea to teach stuck with me so I applied to teach English in Laos for a six month contract.  A couple of phone calls later I was hired, and a few months after that I was saying a tearful goodbye to Guy at the airport.  In hindsight I didn’t really think it through too much – it was an option to escape and I seized it with both hands.  Having said that I also don’t think you can ever prepare for life in a different country, especially one that is so fundamentally different to your own.

vientiane, laos

My first morning in Vientiane, and my first experience with the locals I got ripped off buying a bottle of water from the store across the road from my apartment.  I guess I stuck out as a new falang (foreigner) because there were no others in my village that I encountered over the next six months.  The next day I ventured downtown – a terrifying experience when you have the directional abilities of a pumpkin.  I tried to ask for directions to the Mekong a couple of times but no one could speak English and I didn’t know any Lao so I wandered around aimlessly.  I bought some fruit from a tuk tuk stand and the man point blank refused to give me my change.  Later on I stopped in at a bar for a Beerlao and when I received my change, noticed that the staff were all grinning at each other and laughing – bemused I realised as I was walking away that they had short changed me a couple of dollars (presumably on purpose). I went home hot and sticky and feeling distinctly unwelcome in my new home.

I’d love to say that my first unpleasant experiences were just one-offs and that life improved after that, but unfortunately it didn’t.  I did meet some absolutely lovely Lao people – there was an old lady at my local noodle store who treated me like her long lost daughter, and a man at my local bike repair shop who started giving me free tyre pump ups since I was there so often (I insisted on paying him), and a lovely security guard at my work who spoke no English but always greeted me with a big grin and ensured I had a clear path across the rain flooded walkway.  But, largely my experience with Laotians wasn’t positive and it hugely shaped my experience living in Vientiane.

life in vientiane, laos

It took me nearly two months to accept that it was okay for me to not love Vientiane.  That sounds absurd I know, and it was, it absolutely was.  It wasn’t until I was writing a letter to my sweet friend Kiri that I allowed myself to be okay with it.  After a particularly hard day where I’d come home from a party in tears, I was pouring out my frustrations to her and my clouded mind cleared as only happens when I’m holding a pen in my hand.

For the first time I became conscious of how much pressure I’d been putting on myself.  I acknowledged that my pride was a huge barrier in settling into my life.  I don’t think of myself as a proud person, but I was putting huge amounts of pressure on myself to make my time in Laos a success.  I think this was due to two things; first I had just finished my masters so I was full of a wonderful energetic longing to ‘do anthropology’.  And I felt that if I wasn’t able to cope with living in a new country I wasn’t shaping up to be much of an anthropologist.   Secondly, and equally importantly, I’d left Guy and our life together in New Zealand and I felt a lot of guilt over that.  When I wasn’t enjoying life in Laos I felt like I was incredibly selfish putting him through the stress of a long distance relationship for an experience that I wasn’t even enjoying.

My struggles were made worse by people in my life both from back home and new friends in Laos telling me that I just needed to “go out and make more friends” or “try a bit harder” whenever I mentioned my unhappiness. I can’t even describe how unhelpful that advice was.  Firstly it implied that I wasn’t doing those things which was offensive and hurtful at worst and just plain rude at best.  It also completely invalidated my feelings of loneliness because it made it seem like I was doing something wrong, or at least that I wasn’t doing things the ‘right way’.  Of course, there’s not a lot you can say or do in a situation like that – and I recognise that people were trying to be helpful but keeping quiet is truly better than giving useless advice.

vientiane, laos - the traveling anthropologist

When I did finally accept it, life didn’t become instantly easier, and I didn’t suddenly start loving Vientiane – but I did let myself soak up the good moments; dinner at the night markets, teaching my teenagers, catching tuk tuks, sunday morning brunch dates over croissants, free time to watch sons of anarchy…When I accepted it I stopped blaming myself and I stopped thinking that I must be doing something wrong just because other expats loved it. I stopped trying to defend my dislike of the city, and I stopped letting people tell me to try harder.

I still had bad days, I still felt unhappy and unwelcome at times, and I was still glad to leave at the end of my contract – but I did manage to make the most of the bits that I did enjoy, and I look back on my time there with a smile on my face.  It was such a great experience and one that I wouldn’t change for anything.  It made me grow up, look after myself more and re-evaluate some aspects of my life, treasure my friendships, appreciate New Zealand’s beauty, and it ultimately bought me and Guy closer together (as well as taking our relationship to the next level).

If you’re traveling or living somewhere you don’t love I urge you not to give up on it – give it time because you will find some things about it that make your efforts worthwhile.  And please don’t ever blame yourself or feel guilty about it.  You don’t have to love or even like every place you visit. And, if you know someone going through a tough time overseas please think before you spout out advice however well intentioned it is.  Unless you’ve lived through it you don’t know how tough it is so don’t judge just support them.

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